Vindicating the Useless

I graduated from St. Lawrence with many holes in my education. My liberal arts pedigree did not include courses in accounting, finance, public speaking, organizational theory or developmental psychology.

Given my line of work, the irony gets worse. I confess that I missed taking courses in economics, environmental studies and computer science. And yet, the only regret I truly hold about the negative space on my academic record is that I did not find more time for art history or music appreciation. Among thousands of Laurentian alumni, successful across the spectrum of all career fields and in local community leadership, my strong intuition is that I am not alone in declaring that I graduated from college with a few “incompletes.”

Today, not only is there a whiff of dismissal in the air about the value of a broad liberal arts education, as measured by the immediacy of a vocational payoff, but this view is also accompanied at times by a touch of indifference, perhaps hostility, toward the study of arts and humanities. Students and their parents increasingly voice their worries about the risk of the wrong bet on an academic major, such as one in art, philosophy, literature or languages. The hesitation is not surprising in light of agitated public attitudes toward the importance of majoring in something “practical.” Nationally, the number of students majoring in the arts and humanities has been reduced to single-digit percentages. Fifty years ago, however, the comparative fraction at private institutions showed nearly half the total among all majors was not in something “useful.”
Is the current anxiety supported by the facts? This is an important question for St. Lawrence because we are a significant outlier from the swirling discourse about higher education in America. On our campus, 25 percent of today’s students are majoring in the humanities and arts, and because of our flexible curriculum, many of them pair their majors with other fields in science and social science. We may represent a counter-trend, but doesn’t that also make us leaders?

The concern about unemployment, while weighty in its aggregate within the U. S. economy, is truly misplaced when one looks at the jobless rates for degree holders. It is often around 1 percent, which even liberal arts graduates know is not statistically significant. At St. Lawrence, our placement rate over the last five years is about 95 percent, which is among the best in the nation. Is there any variance in that measure between an English major and a government major? None. What about the imagined differences between average starting salaries in the first couple of years out of St. Lawrence—any premium for an economics major or disadvantage for a visual arts major? None.

Nonetheless, why should we strongly encourage the study of arts and humanities, albeit rowing against the shifting current? I have experienced and witnessed the American journey by living in great cities and also small towns, by learning the habits of large regions upon the continent, the two oceanic coasts and the two great river valleys, the Mississippi and the St. Lawrence. While I have benefitted from visiting major museums and renowned art galleries, one of the great lessons of my life is to avoid underestimating what one can learn in the small places. And in those places, owing to the scale, I suppose, what really matters to human beings, their minds, curiosities, values, habits and wills, is deeply knowable and unhidden. You see their detailed apparatus for living more readily.

One spring evening while living in California, we were invited by a retired couple to their modest home for dinner. It was a one-bedroom, one-floor house built on the grounds of an old orange grove. You could see their apparatus for life in closer detail.

Among the framed family snapshots displayed on the center wall was also, improbably, a picture by Marc Chagall, the 20th century French modernist. I assumed it was a copy or a print. When our hosts noticed that we had noticed the art, they winked at each other and then told us it was the real thing, a Chagall painting, probably a study for a larger work. They had once travelled on a dime to Europe, sometime in the 1950s when, by some happenstance, they acquired the art in Paris. Drained of travel money thereafter, they cut short their tour and came home joyously with their little, treasured Chagall. It became the centerpiece of their lives, enduring all the issues and pressures they would face. They built a home around a single work of art, the reference point of their shared pleasure and happiness.

Before young men and women need definition, before they discover an identity, or even ask instruction, they seek expression. Giving sufficient attention to that desire for a power of expression goes back thousands of years, to the red ochre drawings of a reindeer on the walls of a Spanish cave. It is a core impulse that shapes their capacities to observe, reflect, and be sensible about their choices in life. The paradox of our liberal arts success is that the ultimate ability to do “useful” things consistently and superbly depends upon a prior courage to enjoy “useless” objects, activities and moments.